10/28/2013 Jonathan Taylor

President and founder of influential economic and financial analysis firm says drop in male enrollment is not a big deal

There will always be those who say the decline in male college enrollment is “not a big deal.” It is especially unfortunate when the president and founder of an economic and financial analysis firm who is regularly cited by the mainstream media says it.

According to his website, Dr. Ray Perryman is the founder of Perryman Group (an “economic and financial analysis firm”), is “cited by major media as ‘a world-class scholar,’ is ‘the most quoted man in Texas,'” and is a senior research fellow at the Institute of the University of Texas. He has also authored thousands of academic articles, trade articles, and presentations collectively.

He has written an article titled “Making sense of college enrollment decline” wherein he argues that the drop in male college enrollment isn’t really that bad. This article has been cited by numerous online media outlets. He parses recently published numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and provides us with a framework to interpret them. There are some statements in his article which are illuminating, and others which warrant further scrutiny.

He begins by saying:

The U.S. Bureau of the Census recently released a report indicating college enrollment dropped by about a half million students from 2011 to 2012. In fact, the press release from the Census Bureau said enrollment “plunged” from one year earlier.

Most people are well aware of the correlation between educational attainment and earnings: in general, the higher the education level, the higher the income. Future prosperity, both as individuals and as a society, is tied to improving education levels (particularly for states that are lagging, such as Texas).

Indeed. And by the way, here’s the link to the Census Bureau data (you won’t find it in his article). He continues:

So, is the drop in college enrollment something we should be worried about? I don’t think so, and here’s why. First of all, the drop (which was actually about 467,000 nationwide) isn’t huge compared to total enrollment. With just more than 19.9 million people now in college, the decline was about 2.3 percent from 2011 — not exactly a plunge! 

He’s right about one thing: 2.3% drop in enrollment over the course of one year is not that alarming. A ~2% drop each year over the course of many years, however, would be.

One of the things I try to warn people about is framing their understanding of where men and boys are at in school by just looking at a singular point in time. Instead, I encourage them to consider where they are at as part of a larger trend – the bigger picture, in other words. For example, men are ~33% of those who earn associate’s and master’s degrees, ~40% of those who earn bachelors, and ~45% of those who earn doctorates.

Sounds disconcerting, but not dire, right? Well, instead of looking at graduation rates for a singular year, consider looking at it as part of a trend across many years. Take a look at this data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

Four Graduation Rates, Degrees, Associates, Bachelors, Masters, Doctorate, by Sex and Percentage, United States (new version)

Now granted, while this is a graph on graduation rates, Dr. Perryman is referring to enrollment. Here is a chart on undergraduate enrollment (the vast majority of enrollments in higher ed), found at Higher Ed Live and based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

Total undergrad enrollment from Higher Ed Live

We will come back to this graph later in this post. Dr. Perryman continues:

One thing of note is that first-year enrollment in college actually went up from 2011 to 2012. The driver was two-year college first-year enrollment, which rose by more than enough to offset the decline in four-year colleges. Moreover, more students enrolled in the first year at two-year colleges (2.6 million) than in four-year (2.3 million), reversing the pattern of 2011, when there were more freshmen at four-year schools.

Reasons for this change include the high price of college and growth in jobs suited to two-year institutions. In addition, the widely publicized problem of unemployment among recent college graduates during the recession was doubtless shaping decisions about whether to pursue four-year degrees.

It is sometimes said that higher education has succeeded very well; students, not so much. This has been especially true over the last 10 years, and will likely continue on into the future. Not only has the price of college skyrocketed, people’s wages have either plummeted or stagnated. To get a picture of the rising college costs, this article in CBS Local says:

The rising cost of college has increasingly become a burden for many Americans. According to administration figures, the tuition costs at public, four-year universities has tripled over the last 30 years and average student loan debt stands at $26,000.

And of course, people tend to question the intellectual merit of higher education when they see professors like Jonathan Allan teach entire graduate-level courses on 50 Shades of Gray and Twilight.

Just sayin’.

In addition, the glow of being the first generation of one’s family to attend college has worn off, and people are now looking on the education system without the rose-colored glasses that they did decades ago.

Older students accounted for much of the decrease in enrollment. In fact, more than half of the total overall drop fell within one relatively small group: part-time male students over the age of 25, who numbered fewer than 1.5 million persons in 2011 (less than 7.3 percent of total college enrollment of 20.4 million).

Between 2011 and 2012, enrollment among this group fell by 243,000, which is a full 52 percent of the overall decline. Why would these men stop enrolling in college part time? Mostly, because they found a better option (a job).

But what kind of job? The article does not say. It is incorrect to assume that simply because someone took a job instead of going to college that his economic prospects over the long-term automatically increased.

Furthermore, if women are enrolling in higher education at greater rates every year, and men are finding jobs at greater rates every year, why does the Bureau of Labor Statistics report that men’s unemployment has recently gone up whereas women’s unemployment has gone down?

Seems a little off. Continuing with the article:

The data by race is also informative. While the overall total fell, Hispanic enrollment increased by 447,000. The percentage of Hispanic high school graduates aged 18-24 who are enrolled in college surpassed the percentage for whites for the first time in 2012, which represents a notable change from historical patterns.

Part of this is simply because the Hispanic population is increasing substantially relative to other groups. Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success) at UT Austin, who I’ve had the pleasure of personally seeing in action on multiple occasions, is an excellent organization that addresses Latino male issues in education, and occasionally talks about male education issues generally.

In 1972, just 27.2 percent of Hispanics (which can be of any race) who had graduated from high school and were younger than 24 were enrolled in college. Forty years later, 49.4 percent were enrolled. The increase has been particularly significant in recent years — as recently as 2002 the proportion was 32 percent, and in 2008 it was 37.7 percent.

Looking at changes by gender, male students declined by 530,000, while females increased by 61,000. As noted, older part-time male student enrollment fell sharply. White, non-Hispanic male enrollment dropped by 657,000. Enrollment for male part-time students who were working full time fell 302,000. No matter how you slice or dice it, male students comprised the bulk of the overall drop.

In other words, what he means in the bold section (my emphasis) is that male educational decline is not something that solely affects males who are white, or Hispanic, or black, or poor, or rich, and so forth. It’s something that affects males of every demographic. He’s 100% correct, and the data clearly show this. I emphasize this because you will often hear the partisan spin doctors on both the left and the right disingenuously suggest otherwise. Now, read between the lines of what he is saying next:

One particularly bright note for females is the large gain in enrollment among Hispanics, which rose by 375,000 (an increase of almost 25 percent).

Why would a gain in Hispanic enrollment be a “bright note” for females in general? Do females of all races prefer hanging out with Hispanic people? The sentence is worded in a convoluted way, so allow me to translate with what I’ve learned over the years.

According to Project MALES staff (and I’ve heard them say this on similar occasions), institutional researchers actually started a little late collecting data about Latino progress through the educational pipeline in comparison with other races. Along the way, they found that Hispanic males have actually surpassed black males in raw numbers of high school dropouts – an unexpected finding. In addition, they found out that there are almost no Latino males in college, and even fewer Latino males in the teaching professions, at any level.

In other words, it’s not really a “bright note” that Hispanic females are succeeding far more than Hispanic males any more than it is a “bright note” that men of all races are falling far behind in terms of educational attainment. Dr. Perryman is just framing what would otherwise sound like bad news in a good way. On a related note, I’ve uploaded some charts on dropout rates by sex and race from when I attended the 2011 Project MALES symposium. See them for yourself (click to enlarge):

PM stats 1

Front of Handout

Dr. Perryman closes the article by making a more extensive argument on why the drop in enrollment really isn’t bad because it correlates with growing economic prospects:

A long-term historical view shows a slow increase in the proportion of high school graduates aged 18-24 who are enrolled in college. This percentage currently stands at 48.5 percent, up from 34.9 percent in 1967. However, the pattern is not totally smooth, instead bumping around some in response to economic conditions. College enrollment is driven by an economic decision process, and the opportunity cost (what the potential student could be earning out in the job market) is a very relevant consideration.

When the economy is weak, job options are more limited and often less financially attractive. The choice to attend college may make more sense with a dearth of available work. On the other hand, as the job market improves, college becomes more costly in terms of the lost wages that could be earned by entering the workforce instead. A drop in enrollment between 2011 and 2012 fits this criterion, because hiring was picking up over the timeframe.

All in all, the good news in the enrollment figures outweighs the bad. A slight overall decline largely driven by a decline in the number of part-time students is more a signal that the job market was improving than anything else. The number of Americans entering college is still on the rise, and key groups such as the rapidly growing Hispanic population are experiencing sharp gains in enrollment percentages.

Not so fast. Again, if your argument is that male enrollment is decreasing because men are getting more jobs, why is it the case that unemployment has steadily grown for men and decreased for women?

At first, by looking at enrollment trends relative to economic trends, Dr. Perryman’s statement would appear true on the surface: enrollment tends to increase when the economy is poor. And while the economy was very poor from 2005-2009, the percentage of men enrolled in college relative to women did indeed increase.

But again, take a look at this chart on undergraduate enrollment (the vast majority of enrollments in higher ed), found at Higher Ed Live and based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics:


Total undergrad enrollment from Higher Ed Live

Here’s the kicker: it’s not just whether enrollment goes up. It’s also by how much. You could indeed say that, between 2005 and 2009 when the economy was poor, male enrollment went up.

By 0.4%.

Not even 1%.

And that’s 0.4% total, over the course of four years.

I suppose if you fall very ill and your heart rate goes down to 30 beats per minute, you could indeed say that going from 30 beats to 31 beats per minute over the course of half an hour on the way to the hospital is “not so bad.” After all, you could indeed say that you recently “made gains.”

Imagine if a doctor used that rationale when your heart rate started going down again from 31 beats per minute. “Hey, but you just made gains by going up from 30. No problem, right?” That is similar to what is happening here, now that male enrollment is declining yet again. I’m not a doctor, but you get the idea.

The fundamental premise of this article is that a 2.3% drop in overall enrollments over a single year is not that alarming. Well, if a 2.3% drop over the course of one year is not substantially bad, why all of a sudden is a 0.4% gain over the course of four years substantially good?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. There is data out there to support virtually any claim. So the question “is there is data to support the claim” is irrelevant. The real question is whether the data is proportionate to the degree to which the claim is being made. In this case, the data just isn’t there to support the framework Dr. Perryman is providing.

Jonathan Taylor
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Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan is Title IX For All's founder, editor, web designer, and database developer. Hailing from Texas, he makes a mean red beans n' rice and is always interested to learn new things.
Jonathan Taylor
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About the Author

Jonathan Taylor Jonathan is Title IX For All's founder, editor, web designer, and database developer. Hailing from Texas, he makes a mean red beans n' rice and is always interested to learn new things.

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